REVIEW : Sony PXW-X70 Video Camera

In this article, I take an in-depth look at Sony's PWD-X70 XDCAM prosumer video camera.  I was very impressed as you will see in the article.  There is also an accompanying demonstration and sample footage video included as a link in this article.  

I have never been in love with Sony's naming process.  They build some really excellent products and then hide them behind naming conventions that appear to be designed to make users confused and frustrated.  The excellent PXW-X70 is one such product and thus I will only refer to it as the X70.

I do not know if there is significance in the naming.  The X70 is a midsized video camera that shoots Full HD video out of the box at up to 60 fps.  It is built for the serious user and has the kinds of functionality that a serious videographer is going to expect.  It's also quite unique in that while it comes out of the box as a FullHD (2K) camera, it can be made into a 4K (QFHD) camera via a software license upgrade.  That in and of itself provides a strong level of investment protection.

Now personally, and in my opinion only, I would rather it just shipped as 4K and given the regular promo bundles that I see with the camera, Sony's sales pros think so as well.  Let's face it, 4K is the standard today for shooting even though the majority of viewers still have no way to play 4K back at full resolution, nor does every edit suite have the hardware to keep up.   Editing 4K out of camera like this is a lot more compute intensive than 4K out of a Go Pro or point and shoot.

For the new user, you can literally pull the camera from the box, charge the battery, install an SDXC card in the slot and start shooting.  Yes, it really is that intuitive and easy to use.  The automatic exposure system is extremely accurate, the autofocus is quick, the zoom mechanism is easy to use and you don't have to dive into menu dungeons just to get the camera to work.  While all good, these are not the primary design points because you could get all that for a smaller investment.

The differentiation starts with the sensor.  It's a 1 inch RS Exmoor sensor, so larger than the sensor in most consumer video cameras and larger than the very popular Super 16 sensors that we are seeing in the prosumer space.  The sensor is not as large as a Super 35 variant and that serves to keep the unit smaller and lighter.  The camera can see in light levels as low as 1.7 lux and has a gain range of -3 to +33 db as well as the aforementioned automatic gain control.  That's a much wider range than your typical video camera, and the Sony 1" Exmor sensors are proven to have excellent dynamic range.  To deal with very bright scenarios, there is a 4 position built in Neutral Density filter offering 0, 2, 4 and 6 stops of light transmission reduction.  This allows for maintaining shallow depth of field even in very bright conditions.

Frame rates are 23.98, 25, 29.97, 50 and 59.94 frames per second.  There are white balance presets at 3200K and 5600K as well as custom white balance options for your particular shooting scenario.

Unlike most prosumer video cameras, you can get very high bandwidth recordings.  This camera will do XAVC Long GOP at up to 50Mb/s 4:2:2.  You can certainly capture video at lower bandwidth settings, down to 25Mb/s while still in XAVC-Long mode.  I like the higher bandwidth for the better data to work with but acknowledge that I will need to stuff both memory card slots with very sizeable SDXC cards.  You can get about 120 minutes of best quality video on a single 64GB SDXC card.  I know that there are people who will advocate shooting at a lower quality rating to get smaller files, but my perspective is that I can always edit down for size, but never upscale without significant compromise.  Storage is relatively inexpensive, it's easy to carry lots of it and why compromise on footage that you will never get again..

The single supplied NPV-70 battery will run a maximum of about 200 minutes in normal use.  Get a spare.  And get an outboard charger.  The AC adapter requires the battery to be in camera to charge it.  This is normal for Sony and every time I encounter a camera without an independent battery charger I want to scream.  It's so fundamentally stupid to require a client to tie up their very useful camera just to charge the battery, and I believe it is a customer disservice to require the client to purchase a standalone battery charger at additional cost considering the investment required for this camera.  Sony is not alone in this customer unfriendly mode, but could change things easily and set a better example.

The Zeiss lens is a fixed installation with an iris (aperture) range of f/2.8 to f/4.5.   Focus is either automatic or manual.  Auto is pretty quick but if you change subjects from far to near, expect some seek time to attain focus lock.  There are no prefocus lock stops for manual focus so you need to be on your game pulling focus manually.  The lens is a 12x optical zoom with a look and feel of a 29mm to 348mm range on a 16:9 35mm frame.  It's a very good working range and if you are steady, you can handhold footage at the long end.  You can mount standard filters in the 62mm thread mount if you wish.  In addition to the optical zoom, Sony advertises what they call the 24x Clear View zoom.  This is a digital zoom that does pixel interpolation during recording.  It looked ok, but I could tell a difference when examining individual frames.  There is also a 48x digital zoom that works without interpolation and while some will use it, I think it looks horrible, just like all digital zooms.  I'm not pitching a rock at Sony here.  Some people want that zoom in camera regardless of image quality.  It's not for me though.

You can shoot either using the flip out and rotatable LCD screen or the eyelevel finder.  The LCD rotates enough so if you are both the shooter and the talent, you can see what's going on.  I used the eyelevel viewfinder nearly exclusively for better control of extraneous light and for the precision that the excellent OLED display brings.  As I will note in the video, I particularly liked the large area rubber eyecup.

From the side.  Note the extensive audio controls on the accessory handle

From the side.  Note the extensive audio controls on the accessory handle

Audio is well handled as well.  There is of course a built in microphone that performs exactly the way you would expect it to, meaning fine for a sync track but unsuitable for proper audio.  The carry handle connects to the body via the Sony Multi-Interface foot to shoe connection and in addition to carry convenience gives you a second start stop button, a controllable zoom rocker and two proper XLR audio inputs with individual controls for the embedded preamps.  The handle include the clamp mount for an on camera shotgun microphone.  I tried it with my RODE NTG-3 and all worked well.  This is a very decent audio system indeed and the recorded audio was very good when I used a set of Sony Wireless mics on the test talent, specifically the UWP-D11 reviewed in another article.  The handle also allows easier shooting from a low position if your knees and spine are not fond of crawling around.

The tripod mount is a single 1/4-20 mount of decent stability.  It's the difference between this line and the real pro stuff that gets us metal plates and multiple mount points.  If you need that sort of thing, you can always mount the X70 into a rig.

The X70 gives you full and complete manual control of the camera.  Reading the documentation is a good idea because there is a lot of functionality in this camera that is not surface apparent.  While I said you can get going without reading the documentation, that doesn't mean that I think you should.  Read the docs, there is a lot here for you.  I really like the dual card slots because even the best preparation could mean you hit the wall on one card during a shoot and you will appreciate the automatic switchover.  The slow and quick motion functions are very nicely done, but you need to think about your base framerates if you want to use these functions.  Planning matters as in all things.

3G SDI and HDMI outputs provide great flexibility for outboard recording and monitoring

3G SDI and HDMI outputs provide great flexibility for outboard recording and monitoring

Getting information out of the camera is very flexible as well.  There is WiFi/NFC support built in, but for serious use there are both HDMI outputs and HD SDI 3G outputs built right in.  As I will often use a field video recorder instead of cards, I liked this very much.  Both outputs support Timecode and REC trigger.  I know that folks love the wireless control capability, but while I think Sony makes awesome hardware, their software still needs quite a bit of work in my opinion.  Sony makes superb video and audio gear, software is not their strong point.

I really appreciated that I could take the output and directly import it into Final Cut Pro X and Adobe Premiere Pro without requiring any transcoding.  The footage was really good with excellent dynamic range and while I did not find a Sony S-Log 3 Gamma option, using my colour tools was easy and I could also use stylistic plugins with minimal tweaking required.  The video starts with sample footage, and the only processing done to it was very basic exposure control to fit the broadcast space.  Thus, what you see is as close to straight out of camera as you can get and still experience the superb shadow detail and overall dynamic range.

The PXW-X70 retails for around $2630, quite reasonable for the quality and flexibility of the product.  The upgrade license for 4K is an additional $780.  I understand setting pricing to win a market, but it is 2016 and I would be inclined to suggest that Sony do a bundle with the upgrade at a more aggressive combination price.  The current model puts it very close when adding the 4K license to the level up PXW-Z150.  Sony really knows video and should, in my opinion, be punching hard to own the prosumer 4K space before another company does.  While there are certainly credible competitors, this really is Sony's market to lose.

I like the X70 very much.  For the video enthusiast or person starting into serious video, and who wants to avoid the constraints of shooting with a DSLR or higher end mirrorless, this is an excellent product.  You have to jump a fair bit in investment to get to interchangeable lenses and a Super 35 sensor.  I am confident that one could be satisfied with this camera (with the 4K upgrade) for several years.  My personal use cases will drive me to the larger sensor and interchangeable lenses (actually they did a while back) but I like the ease of handling and 4K ability of this product in its price point.

Here's where you can watch the video.  I start with some very short clips of the camera in action.  All shots are handheld, and even clips shot while I was walking are inoffensive and not the horrible shaky cam.  I chose not to take a tripod into the field because if the footage looks decent handheld, it will be fine when shot from a stable position.  Following the sample clips, I go through the camera visually, pointing out the features and functionality to help viewers who have never seen one up close get a very good idea of layout and usability.

Thanks for reading, and until next time, peace.